Settled on the Senate side, a couple of blocks northeast of the Capitol, and nearly centered between the Hart Building and Union Station, sits a beery refuge that seems miles away.
“We’re in the business of hospitality and having a good time. We’re not in the business of trying to extend any kind of political discourse or our political feelings,” says Union Pub owner Matt Weiss.
If you’ve ever set foot inside the Capitol Hill sports bar — decorated with plaques and posters honoring just a couple of its fan bases, the Chicago Bears and the Florida State Seminoles — you know the feeling. It’s like you’ve stepped outside of Washington.
It’s only the dull roar of congressional shop talk that brings you back to reality. That woman in the corner? She’s probably a legislative assistant. Those interns splitting “chicken totchos” (that’s tater tots plus nachos)? They all work at the Capitol too.
“I’m almost the Matthew McConaughey of Capitol Hill — I keep getting older and my staff and guests stay the same age,” Weiss laughs.
Union Pub opened on Massachusetts Avenue Northeast in January 2005, the latest in a string of restaurant hopefuls on the same spot. In 1988 Tortilla Coast called the site home (while former Speaker Paul D. Ryan called the spot “work”) before moving around the corner from the Capitol South metro station. When the space was up for grabs in May 1995, Weiss claimed it and opened Red River Grill, the first iteration of his Hill conquest.
“I was just a kid, I was 27 years old … I had no business opening a restaurant,” says Weiss of his first venture as a restaurateur.
The name “Red River” was inspired by the identically titled 1948 classic western film starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. Although the moniker was new, the original Tex-Mex concept introduced by former Tortilla Coast owners Bo Marcus and John Breen would remain unchanged for a decade.
Red River Grill wasn’t the “best” Tex-Mex, admits Weiss, but he was quick to recall an item that did make up for the less than tantalizing fajitas and quesadillas: the “red, white and blue” margaritas. The frozen concoction was a blend of the restaurant’s strawberry and classic margaritas, topped with Blue Curacao. They were also a pain in the ass on Thursday nights, when swarms of pub-goers would flock in for “pitcher night.”
“Those machines were terrible, they would overheat, they wouldn’t freeze. … There was so much demand, and these damn machines could never catch up,” Weiss recalls.
He fondly remembers Red River Grill as the “Cheers” of Capitol Hill — a nickname adopted by employees and regulars alike for the friendly and welcoming atmosphere modeled after the popular 1980s sitcom.
Today, after an extensive renovation and a brand-new name, Union Pub still carries the same neighborhood vibe, with a concept that leans more “sports” than “southwestern,” Weiss says. Gigantic TVs and projection screens draw hardcore football fans in the fall.
The transition is years in the past by now, but the place retains its Red River roots in at least one crucial way: It sees a constant stream of interns, coordinators, chiefs of staff and government officials.
“We know we’re not setting the culinary world on fire,” Weiss says of the menu. It’s the experience that counts.
He now owns five restaurants around D.C., including The State Room (just steps away from Union Pub), Barrel, McClellan’s Retreat in Dupont, and Bloomingdale’s Truxton Inn. This summer, he’s adding another bar to his list: The Eastern, appropriately named after its locale in the Eastern Market neighborhood.
Unlike neighboring restaurant La Loma, which closed its doors this week after two decades, Weiss assures me he sees Union Pub sticking around “forever.”